“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind. It’s a very subtle art. ” – Inception

Nation-wide change. That was the idea. Earlier at about 3:30am I woke up in Chipata and gathered my things. Without waking up the families I live with and moving past the pack of excited guard dogs, I had the watchman unlock the gate and I made my out. Walking past the eerily dark neighbouring school and towards the blinding headlights that would take me to the bus station, I reviewed my goals, my approach and the people I was targeting for this trip. Now, my head was leaning against the window of the bus that was taking me to Lusaka trying to ignore the Zambian music being played far too loud for 6:00am.

I kept looking out the window of the bus. I saw village after village along they way. Families were out in the fields early in the morning preparing land and planting seeds as the first rains have just started falling. I was committed to the idea that I could positively affect people across the entire country, those not unlike the families passing by my window. I knew my one chance was in Lusaka. One chance to improve operations at the headquarters of my partner organization.

Farmers preparing their fields in rural Zambia

Throughout my placement I identified “capacity” as their limiting factor to support and adopt agricultural agents who would then provide valuable advice and access to agricultural products to rural farmers. It’s almost comical how many articles, presentations and emails I’ve given people in the company addressing capacity issues. The topics were wide. An article on leadership styles from MaRS, presentations on identifying 7 Types of Waste and asking“why?” 5 times, an article from the Economist about Lean manufacturing were all part of my informational onslaught.

The main idea I wanted to spread was: Work on improving the processes within the business. Pushing people alone is showing diminishing returns as the business grows. Improve processes, adopt agricultural agents to reach and support rural farmers in Zambia.

Recommendations were provided in meetings to place focus on their processes and away from people. I was certain that they were blinded from the real problems in their operations by a single assumption. The assumption that the root cause of all their and problems was a lack of initiative from their staff.

View of the warehouse and the main office (right) from inside a supply truck.

Thus far, I’ve been unable to change that viewpoint. I’ve been unable to get staff and management to shift their focus towards identifying root cause problems that are strangling their business. Resources and theory were not enough to illicit a sense of urgency amongst the staff that matched mine. When I looked at the processes and looked at the reasoning behind the protocols seen in the business, I was almost demoralized. I was suffering my own Cassandra Complex,  “the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” -12 Monkeys

The resources I provided were too abstract to grasp, too abstract to connect to what they were experiencing on a day to day basis. I needed to provide something more tangible that their minds could latch onto. From there, I could take them step-by-step towards thinking about systems and their efficiency. I had to take a step back to step forward.

Sharing different ideas on creating a production line, from what we can implement today, to the ideal.

I started to grab people individually to talk one-on-one. It was almost militaristic how individuals in different roles and levels of power were ambushed. Pen and paper at the ready, they were attacked with drawings and discussions about problems in their business system. I fired off different ideas on how to solve these problems opting to provide concrete ideas above providing theoretical frameworks and tools to analyze these problems. After seeing how receptive people were to passionate speeches,  I pulled others aside and gave preacher-like motivational talks to those in key roles and those showing extremely low engagement in the business. Again, I was fighting a losing battle on this front. Problem-solution examples didn’t seem to take and the extra motivation would easily dissipate when it resulted in nothing. I had to change my delivery.

Throwing down my stationary, I stood up from my leather chair and walked out of the office towards the warehouse. The sun was high and hot as I made my way across the parking lot with the warehouse’s open doors in front of me. I could only see darkness inside against the bright concrete ramp leading into it. I was certain of only two things that would happen in there. My clothes were about to be covered in agro-chemical dust and  I was going to setup a flow production line within the next hour.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness and a predictable scene emerged. Workers were scattered all over the place working alone on the floor with dozens of open bottles in front of each one. Every worker was directly exposed to chemicals, the dangers were high, the speed was slow and it was impossible for a supervisor to determine if they were behind demand before it was too late.

Batch Production... dangerous & slow. But workers feel like they're producing more.

Far in the back, I saw a table that was being used to take up space, collect dust and be esthetically displeasing. I had some workers take it out into the open and with help from the supervisors we set up a production line. Production speeds doubled. Now, only one person had to be in direct contact with chemicals on a four-person team. The chances of chemicals spills were reduced since there were only one or two open bottles on the line at any given time. An improvement from the hundreds that were on the floor.

Never invest in a prototype any more than you need to. Prototyping is about speed and iterating. I found this table in the back of the warehouse and decided to build a process on top of this instead of going through the long processes of requesting workbenches.

Admittedly, I did this partly for myself. I understood it was far removed from helping people like those I saw from the bus. But, making a work environment safer, faster without using money is really fun. Seeing employees happy that they can work easier and still output more is satisfying. After a few days of attempting to drive a culture of systems thinking, I desperately desired for something…anything… that I could tack onto my sparse internal list of accomplishments during this trip. Within 30 minutes stations were set and the first completed products began to appear.

“What do you feel about this process?” I asked everyone. “It’s a very good idea, it’s brilliant, it’s faster.” Timing this new system versus the previous batch method of production proved just that. I dusted myself off as best as I could and I walked back to my desk leaving footprints of dirt all over the white tile flooring. “Mission accomplished” I thought to myself with a smile packing my things to go home for the day. Tomorrow, I would bring more management and staff to the line and use it as a platform to teach about systems thinking to get more staff to think about improving their operations.

Workers producing agro-products from start to finish. Faster, safer, more flexible and using less floor space.

It was Saturday morning and I arrived at the office excited to see what has become of the production line. I walked into the warehouse and my reaction to what I saw could only be described as an internal dialogue consisting of a disjointed series of inappropriate words and extremely offensive language. I bit my tongue and smiled at the supervisor who was standing in the middle of the warehouse.  After greeting him a warm good morning, I asked him why I was standing in a warehouse full of workers who were again on the floor working alone on huge batches of open bottles.

“So why are they doing it like this?”

“They want to knock-off early, it’s Saturday…”

“Wasn’t the process we setup yesterday faster?”

“Yes it was, it was a really good idea, a good process.”

“So why are they not doing it today?”

“Because… you see, they have a lot of work to do, and it’s a Saturday and they want to go home on time.”

“But the other way yesterday is faster?”

“Yes, but I thought just for today… it’s a Saturday and they want to go home. We’ll do it like this today and setup your process on Monday again.”

It took a lot of effort to hold my smile and hide my frustration. I probably looked like a freakish figurine as I stood there amongst the open bottles of chemicals. The air felt heavy as the chemicals gave a distinct weight to my breathing. “This line of questioning is going nowhere.” I thought.

I decided to walk away and personally time two workers who were a small step ahead of the pack by deciding to work in a 2-step process:  filling and capping bottles. However, they ignored the remaining tasks of applying labels and packing the bottles that will be required later. Staring directly at my watch, I sat in front of them. I wanted to make them to work as fast as they could for this test without having to speak out loud for fear of what I might say after this morning’s disappointment.

I saw that it took 11 seconds to fill a bottle and 3 seconds for the following person to put on a bottle cap. Eight seconds were spent waiting for each bottle. That didn’t sound like too much until I saw the scheduled target for a typical day and calculated the percent-time wasted. Eight-hundred bottles was the target written on the schedule on the wall. I multiplied and it results in 1 hour and 46 minutes spent waiting. If a bottle was filled and capped every 11 seconds, 72.7% of that time was spent waiting.

Fears realized... a chemical spill. Adds danger, wastes product, creates downtime, damages completed products nearby, wastes time by forcing people to clean up. All these wonderful costs so that one can gain the benefit of being able to pay staff to produce product more dangerously at a slower rate.

With those numbers I went to a senior manager. I was almost certain that the idea to focus on systems and processes would begin to take hold, bringing me closer to that elusive nation-wide change I was seeking.

“Oh wow! Really?” was the manager’s response.

“Yes… it is THAT simple.” I thought to myself.

“Yes, that process you did yesterday was very good. It seems it would save us time.”

“Almost there… we setup a process and then saw drastic improvements. Now, please, just make the connection that we need to focus everyone’s efforts on improving the processes within the business…C’mon!” I said to myself with the tension that can only be matched by someone who is one number away from winning the lottery.

“You know, I’ve always said to those supervisors in the warehouse that they should tell the workers to work harder and closely watch them. People are just very lazy there and it causes many problems.”

Holding myself from hitting my head down on the desk, I replied… “Oh… really?”

From theoretical concepts, to tools and frameworks, to one-on-one talks on actual tangible problems with specific solutions, to a physical process in the warehouse…  my options are dwindling.

Tomorrow is another day…


In reality, I believe the time-frame I gave myself to change the mindsets of multiple people was unreasonably short. It’s very difficult to, in only one month, change the mindsets of people who have been working a certain way for multiple years. Everyone in my partner organization is incredibly hard working and have 10-12 hour days 6 days a week. Many are out of the office tackling the various problems that appear on a day-to-day basis. Some individuals can work 20 -48 hours with only a few hours of sleep.

The fact is exposure to systems thinking is minimal. I’ve yet to find a credible systems engineering, industrial or manufacturing engineering program in Zambia. To gain a good understanding of processes and acquiring the ability to see everything as a process that needs improvement requires familiarity with a wide variety of supporting concepts. One has to have a good grasp on work-flow, time, production rates, corporate culture, supply/demand, identifying wastes, human psychology, ergonomics, group facilitation and many more concepts before they can really master process improvement at all levels from the shop floor to nation-wide operations.

If improving processes here in the Lusaka headquarters was my primary goal, I should have been embedded with the staff for at least 2-3 months to understand the values and decision making processes of all individuals involved in the business. Language, previous exposure to concepts and cultural differences are barriers to me understanding and changing the thinking of management here. I haven’t positioned myself well to overcome those challenges by giving myself only one month to initiate actions. Immediately initiating projects without taking the time to sit down and reconnect and build trust amongst the staff reduces my chance of success.

However, I sacrificed my effectiveness at this level to focus my time on the ground level. Creating coupons to improve awareness of regional farmer needs (market demand) while giving them lower prices and creating charts to help farmers and agents identify what is needed to protect their crops was my focus. It was my belief that those two projects would immediately help my target beneficiaries while being visible to the entire market. That market visibility was important to me because our team has the theory that market forces and competition can be used to scale-up those interventions. So far, it looks like one competitor has seen those problem-solution charts and have decided to make their own charts… increasing access to knowledge to farmers across the sector.

Ideally, we would have people on the ground and people in the management level of our partner organizations to maximize our impact.


Turns out the process is back up. I didn’t intervene at all this time which is really promising for this to become sustained. I’m glad. I like the idea of doing more for less effort and being safer while we do it.

Update 3:

Saw this interesting article on my Facebook feed today related to the concepts I attempted to demonstrate: In Manufacturing, Efficiency Equals Sustainability